Saturday, January 23, 2010

Could An Earthquake Flatten Another World Capital?

While the world has been gripped by the tragic near destruction of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, there’s another world capital also at great risk of being felled by an earthquake – Tehran, Iran. And like Port-au-Prince, in recent decades Tehran has seen a massive influx of new residents, swelling the city’s population to more than twelve million, far more than the capital was ever designed to accommodate. With that in mind, I thought I’d repost a link to this story from last November about steps the Iranians are taking to move their capital to a less quake-prone portion of the country.

The idea of moving the capital has been kicking around for the past 20 years, but was finally given the blessing of the country’s supreme authority, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, just this past November. Iran has had numerous capitals during its long history, so a switch in cities would not be unprecedented. One seismologist suggested that rather than just changing cities though that an entirely new capital should be built in the region near the city of Qom, a part of the country that has not had an earthquake in the past 2,000 years.

But while a new capital would certainly prompt a large number of people, particularly those who work with the government, to relocate, history shows that cities of twelve million people don’t just go away. (I remember reading a study once that showed once a city’s population reaches approximately 400,000, no matter what happens; the city will always survive in some form.) So that still means that potentially millions of people will remain living in Tehran, which sits on top of a web of fault lines and thus will still be in danger. There’s recent precedent to that threat, in 2003 a quake devastated the Iranian city of Bam, killing an estimated 40,000 people. Maybe rather than moving the capital better building codes paired with urban and disaster planning might be a better use of Iran’s resources.
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